Vladimir Nabokov on the art of translation

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

 The howlers included in the first category be in their turn divided into two classes. Insufficient acquaintance with the foreign language involved may transform a commonplace expression into some remarkable statement that the real author never intended to make. “Bien être general” becomes the manly assertion that “it is good to be a general”; to which gallant general a French translator of “Hamlet” has been known to pass the caviar. Likewise, in a German edition of Chekhov, a certain teacher, as soon as he enters the classroom, is made to become engrossed in “his newspaper,” which prompted a pompous reviewer to comment on the sad condition of public instruction in pre-Soviet Russia. But the real Chekhov was simply referring to the classroom “journal” which a teacher would open to check lessons, marks and absentees. And inversely, innocent words in an English novel such as “first night” and “public house” have become in a Russian translation “nuptial night” and “a brothel.” These simple examples suffice. They are ridiculous and jarring, but they contain no pernicious purpose; and more often than not the garbled sentence still makes some sense in the original context.

The other class of blunders in the first category includes a more sophisticated kind of mistake, one which is caused by an attack of linguistic Daltonism suddenly blinding the translator. Whether attracted by the far-fetched when the obvious was at hand (What does an Eskimo prefer to eat—ice cream or tallow? Ice cream), or whether unconsciously basing his rendering on some false meaning which repeated readings have imprinted on his mind, he manages to distort in an unexpected and sometimes quite brilliant way the most honest word or the tamest metaphor. I knew a very conscientious poet who in wrestling with the translation of a much tortured text rendered “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” in such a manner as to convey an impression of pale moonlight. He did this by taking for granted that “sickle” referred to the form of the new moon. And a national sense of humor, set into motion by the likeness between the Russian words meaning “arc” and “onion,” led a German professor to translate “a bend of the shore” (in a Pushkin fairy tale) by “the Onion Sea.”

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself; but how contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of “Anna Karenina.” Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. “I am beremenna” (the translator’s italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that “I am pregnant” might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood.

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